Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Premise: A drama about astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his part in the Apollo missions that made Armstrong the first man to set foot on the moon.
What Works: First Man retells the story of the moon landing with an emphasis on the process NASA scientists and engineers went through to get there. The filmmakers make the material fresh by focusing on the peril that the astronauts faced. These people were doing things that hadn’t been done before and involved considerable risk. As shown in the film, some astronauts were killed in the process of testing equipment and Armstrong had several close calls. The filmmakers do an excellent job of realizing the hazards of space travel and that heightens the stakes of the story and gives the characters a heroic quality. First Man is also distinguished in the way it emphasizes the controversy over the space program. Putting the first man on the moon is now a source of national pride for many Americans and today it’s taken for granted. As First Man shows, many politicians and members of the public were skeptical or outright hostile to the space program and questioned its practicality. That provides a different way of thinking about these events and reveals the way scientists, then and now, have fought public opinion and dragged the culture toward some of our greatest scientific achievements. Despite its broader implications, First Man is primarily a personal story. The events unfold from Neil Armstrong’s point of view and the film strikes a balance between the macro issues of science, culture, and human achievement and the micro details of Armstrong’s life. As dramatized here, Armstrong lost a child and his focus on the space program was part of the way he coped with that grief. This unfolds quietly throughout First Man and Ryan Gosling and the filmmakers capture Armstrong’s quiet demeanor. First Man also features an impressive music score by Justin Hurwitz and the film looks great with convincing but naturalistic special effects. The production design captures the period details in ways that feel organically of the time rather than the artificial look of a movie set.
What Doesn’t: First Man isn’t very emotionally grabbing. That may partly be a result of Armstrong’s stoic attitude. Armstrong is portrayed as an introvert who worked out his feelings quietly and internally. But the filmmakers don’t provide enough insight into Armstrong’s grief. There is a terrific final scene in First Man in which Armstrong symbolically reaches a conclusion to his grief but this moment doesn’t pay off as well as it ought to because the rest of the movie isn’t emotionally involving enough. Also, Claire Foy is mostly wasted in the role of Armstrong’s wife Janet. She doesn’t get enough to do and the film fails to explore what the loss of a child did to her and to the marriage.
Bottom Line: First Man is a well-crafted and thoughtful retelling of the Apollo program and the moon landing. The movie is a bit too emotionally staid but it does have an impressive scope and brings a fresh angle to these familiar historical events.
Episode: #724 (November 4, 2018)